The old glass doorway at 38½ Battery Park Ave. opens onto a worn flight of stairs going to an even darker hallway. The electric switch doesn’t work, and what light does find its way in seems to come from dusty windows in an unseen wall. The place smells musty and forgotten, and knocks on all four apartment doors elicit no response. A small metal sign on one door says “private”; on another, a larger ceramic plaque proclaims “To Everything There is a Season.”
Back out in the bright light of day, the nondescript door more or less disappears amid the bustle of restaurants, boutiques and galleries and the throngs of people crowding the busy, tree-lined sidewalk.
Good-looking waiters in crisp white shirts and black aprons dart among packed tables shaded by big umbrellas. Scents of curry and chocolate and waffles, hot coffee and fresh-cut flowers fill the air. A scooter zips by and honks its horn at a guy in a bow tie and seersucker suit, who waves back. A kid blows the sax on the corner, and an old lady in a big red hat and crazy round sunglasses sits perched on a bench, holding onto a little dog improbably sporting a bonnet. So many people out and about, and it’s only Wednesday afternoon.
Above their heads, the subtly elegant facade of 38½ Battery Park silently surveys the lively scene. For a decade or so back in the ’90s, a man named Julian Price lived in a rented apartment here. And in that short time, he revolutionized Asheville.
The way we were
A mere 20 years ago, a 50-year decline had left many downtown buildings empty. The neo-Gothic Grove Arcade, taken over by the federal government during World War II, was home to the National Climatic Data Center and little else, its cavernous space underutilized, its former storefronts bricked in. The J.C. Penney Building and the old Asheville Hotel, where Malaprop’s is now, both stood vacant for decades. And what scarce daytime life there was departed for the suburbs once the sun went down.
That slow urban decay accelerated in the 1970s, when what businesses were left began relocating to the newly built Asheville Mall. A few remained — such as Tops for Shoes on College Street — but in those days, Asheville was mostly a ghost town.
By the late ’80s, there were modest signs of life. A grass-roots rebellion had squelched a plan to level much of downtown and convert it to a mall, and a handful of visionaries had launched a ragtag collection of small businesses amid the empty historic structures hiding behind ugly metal façades. There were even a couple of larger developments in the works.
But it was still pretty dead when Julian Price arrived in 1990. Born into a rich Greensboro family — his grandfather made a fortune in the insurance business — Price was a private man who was never really comfortable having money. Wanting to get out from under his family’s shadow, he spent the ’70s and ’80s in California, taking low-paying jobs and working for environmental causes. Good with tools, he did construction and tried his hand at a few startup businesses before making a name for himself conducting interviews on public radio.
Somewhere along the line, however, he felt the call to come home to North Carolina. Standing at the top of Walnut Street on a visit here, Price surveyed the mostly vacant urban landscape and, overcome with emotion, decided then and there to make this city his home.
Partners in preservation
“That’s a great story,” Pat Whalen, an old friend of Price’s, says with a somewhat skeptical laugh. Whalen is president of Public Interest Projects, a for-profit corporation Price established in 1991 to serve as an engine for downtown revitalization. Whalen managed Price’s business finances, and together they invested in interesting people and ideas, buying and renovating property no one else would touch at the time. Over the next 11 years, they invested or gave away some $15 million — the bulk of Price’s fortune — on a mission to remake downtown Asheville..
Dozens of shelves stuffed with books and binders and architectural plans flank the polished wood conference table in PIP’s offices, nestled on the back of the Vanderbilt Apartments. Griffin Awards from the Preservation Society and assorted other framed certificates and plaques take up an entire wall. A huge aerial map of downtown Asheville makes the big, open space feel like a cross between a research library and a war room. In the center of the table sits an 8-inch-thick bound scrapbook, and as he talks, Whalen occasionally lays his hand or drums his fingers on its cover.
Despite having worked at The Orange Peel (another PIP project) until 4 a.m., Whalen perks up, eyes sparkling and a big, faraway smile playing over his face, whenever he mentions his old friend by name. Whalen probably spent more time with Price than anyone except Meg MacLeod, his wife, whom he met at an open house at the French Broad Food Co-Op shortly after arriving in town.
It’s not hard to find people who knew Julian, or knew of him, anyway. What’s proven more difficult is locating folks who knew him very well. Everyone, however, seems to agree on a few basic facts: He was a modest and unassuming man who lived simply and dodged the spotlight. A gentle giant with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Price had a passion for the environment and was a quiet advocate for pedestrian issues, sustainability, livability and mixed-use development — long before they became buzzwords.
It wasn’t uncommon for Price to walk into a place without any fanfare and dash off a check for tens of thousands of dollars if he liked what you were doing. On the strength of a five-minute phone call, he gave the Mountain Microenterprise Fund (now Mountain BizWorks) $50,000 to help get it going. He figured Asheville would benefit from having a full-service vegetarian restaurant (a radical idea at the time), so he invested in Joe and Joan Eckert’s dream: the Laughing Seed Café.
All told, Price bought and restored dozens of downtown properties, including the J.C. Penney Building, the old Asheville Hotel and the Carolina Apartments — turning mostly derelict space into affordable condos, rental apartments and retail space. He refurbished the historic former George Vanderbilt Hotel, which an ill-advised prior face-lift had turned into a characterless brick box. He bought the Public Service Building and gave it to the Self-Help Credit Union. He funded an alternative reading room featuring publications one wouldn’t find at Pack Library. He provided startup capital, charitable donations and low-interest loans to countless businesses and groups around town, including the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, Mountain Housing Opportunities, Pisgah Legal Services, RiverLink, the Mountain Area Information Network, Quality Forward (now Asheville GreenWorks) and the YWCA. The list goes on and on.
This newspaper, too, benefited from Price’s largess; on a fateful day some 20 years ago, he handed Green Line Publisher Jeff Fobes a check for $30,000 to keep the shoestring operation afloat and continued his support as it transitioned from a struggling environmental monthly to the financially viable business it is today.
From the bottom of our hearts
Price was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August of 2001, and before he died in November of that year, Whalen presented him with that fat bound scrapbook that now resides Public Interest Projects’ offices, its pages filled with handwritten thank-you notes and snapshots from the hundreds of people whose dreams Price helped make reality.
During one of their final meetings, shortly before Price died at age 60, he was sitting in his Battery Park apartment with the scrapbook (which he’d avoided looking at for weeks) on his lap. Evoking the moment, Whalen recalls, “Julian was looking at it, and he said…” he hesitates, choking up a little. And after taking a moment to collect himself, Whalen gestures gently toward the book. “Julian said, ‘Please, just tell everybody … thank you from the bottom of my heart.’”
Although he did as much — if not more — than George Vanderbilt or E.W. Grove to bring businesses and people here, there are no local monuments to Julian Price. No streets or parks or (ironically) even buildings bear his name.
But Price’s legacy is something far more vital: a thriving downtown reflecting lively arts and business communities; a city center that’s a great place to live and work and play. A downtown that — after decades of doubt and neglect — is once again the heart and soul of Asheville.
— Michael Muller can be reached at at 251-1333, ext. 154, or at email@example.com.